To the editors,
I am writing to comment on K. Ostberg's article (August 20) and C. Pecciotto's letter (September 10) on the Critical Mass bicycle movement. Bicycling in cities is fun! I've been doing it for about 30 years, in Boston, Paris, and Chicago, for pleasure, commuting, and errands. I too enjoy industrial tourism and find that traveling by bicycle is an ideal pace for really seeing both urban and rural environments.
However, you don't have to break the traffic laws to do this. I frequently ride with the Evanston Bicycle Club in the city and suburbs, and we always obey traffic lights, signal our turns, and ride with the traffic, not against it. The main reason that I obey traffic laws is for my own survival. Car drivers expect to see other cars, but they don't expect to see bicycles. So I have found that the best way to avoid getting hit by a car on a bicycle is by behaving as closely as possible like a car. This includes using lights at night, obeying the traffic laws, and not weaving among parked and moving cars. I've only been hit once, by a driver who had the setting sun shining directly into her eyes, and my helmet saved my brains.
Like every automobile driver, every cyclist can make a mistake. If I were to get in the habit of running red lights because I think when I can see that no cars are coming, someday my reflexes would fail me. Someday when I'm tired, I would run that red light, a sleepy or drunk driver would be coming down the cross street, see the green light, expect the intersection to be clear, and plow right into me. The reason that all auto drivers should obey traffic laws and drive defensively is that none of them is perfect, and it keeps them alive. Exactly the same logic applies to us cyclists.
I also obey the laws to communicate a desire for mutual respect with and from car drivers. The most respect from drivers that I have ever experienced was in Great Britain. There cyclists actually get ticketed by police for running stop signs or riding at night without lights. But car drivers treat cyclists with courtesy, exactly as they would other drivers. In Britain, I have bicycled in fast rush-hour traffic on narrow four-lane highways. Even on the two-lane roundabouts I felt completely safe.
Obviously, we don't get the same level of respect here in the U.S. of A. But it's not obvious to me that the best way of changing this situation is by inconveniencing tired and grumpy commuters. Civil disobedience is a powerful tactic in desperate circumstances. Civil disobedience is eminently appropriate for bringing attention to racial discrimination, to police brutality, to executions of innocent people, to economic blockades of impoverished children, to unjust wars. But our mediocre environment for cycling just doesn't feel like the same level of injustice to me. Don't get me wrong--of all of the injustices listed in this paragraph, the mediocre cycling environment is the only one that I experience personally.
But I worry that Critical Mass will alienate rather than increase support for cyclists' rights and facilities. I respect the idealism and activism behind Critical Mass, and I understand the righteous and impatient anger that fuels it. But I think that it would be more effective to channel these emotions to other tactics, such as supporting the work of League of Illinois Bicyclists and the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. These young organizations have made a difference already. If the terrible precedent of the Boub decision [see earlier articles in the Reader in 1998 and 1999 by Jeff Balch] is to be overruled by the Illinois legislature, it will be because of their efforts.
And to have fun, we don't have to block traffic. (Nor do we have to scare pedestrians out of their wits on the lakefront recreational path, as do some really self-centered hot-rod cyclists--who probably never ride with Critical Mass.)
A. Christopher Wilson